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Cheryl Bess Hasn’t Just Survived, She’s Thrived

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was mummified in bandages from the chest up, nearly skinless, when I met Cheryl Bess 13 years ago.

Blinded and burned by sulfuric acid and left for dead by her attacker, she survived. She had wandered five or six hours through the San Bernardino County desert before she got help. She was 15.

Standing at her bedside in the intensive care unit of the UC Irvine Burn Center, knowing her face would need to be surgically rebuilt over dozens of operations, it was hard not to wonder: Was she up to the difficult life ahead?

As we came to know each other, her luminous grace and goodness made her impossible not to love and admire. Though her face and sight were stolen before her first date, she never lost her dignity. It always seemed that she focused on her strengths. Early on, she decided to try for a career using her voice--on radio and singing--but I worried. Would the world accept her?

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On a recent Friday afternoon, the answer seemed a resounding yes.

With high honors, Bess graduated from Saddleback College in Mission Viejo with an associate degree and certificate in radio broadcasting and the hope of becoming a professional disc jockey.

At the college’s student-run station, Bess--who added Braille to the equipment for her weekly programs--racked up several years’ experience spinning tunes and hosting an open-forum talk show. She has demo tapes. She now will seek a paying job.

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As darkness lifted on the morning of Oct. 24, 1984, Cheryl Bess walked toward San Bernardino High School, where she was a sophomore. Passing by a McDonald’s, she recognized a maintenance worker from her public housing building.

Jack Oscar King, slightly built, age 65, offered her a ride. When she asked why he was headed in the wrong direction, he said he needed to stop by his house to shut off the lights. At the house, he put a screwdriver to her neck to get her out of his truck, but she fought off going inside. So he drove to a remote part of the Mojave Desert off I-15, threatening to douse her with drain cleaner if she bolted.

Cheryl fought back, trying to bash him with a rock. King poured a liter of the corrosive chemical over her head, kicked her into some bushes and drove off.

As her skin burned away, she walked for hours in excruciating pain before an aqueduct worker came upon her. He placed her in his truck and drove her to a convenience store to summon help. I will never forget his words in court later: She was like a walking skeleton.

The sulfuric acid was so caustic that when paramedics rinsed Cheryl’s face with saline solution, the runoff blistered the paint on the aqueduct worker’s truck.

It was uncertain whether she would live. I remember meeting Cheryl’s mother, Norma, at the hospital and thinking: What on earth does one say at a time like this? All I could think of was to offer to go buy her more cigarettes. We sat for hours in the cafeteria, her hair in a scarf, her face stoic, her voice never breaking. Smoking and smoking. Memories of mother-daughter fun. Small joys of buying used paperbacks, dime ice cream cones.

I did not question why she hadn’t teared up. I sensed if she momentarily released her grip on composure, that would be it. It also was apparent that if Cheryl was as strong as her mother, she stood a shot.

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Cheryl and her mother had no money, and burn care is outrageously expensive. Initially, Medi-Cal rejected paying for replacement of Cheryl’s eyelids, which was required in order that she one day might see again. Such surgery was deemed “cosmetic.”

But a trust fund for Cheryl had been established by the Safety Employees Benefit Assn. of San Bernardino, which represents sheriff’s deputies, marshal’s deputies and district attorney investigators, and over time, she underwent numerous surgeries to give her back her face. Her doctor, Bruce Achauer, said at the time that he had not seen a patient with a more deeply burned head. He set about creating eyelids built upon a filmy tissue taken from the stomach area. Layer upon layer of skin grafts were needed so that eventually a transplanted cornea would be protected.

A new nose was constructed out of skin and tissue, shaped something like a carrot. The larger end was grafted onto the center of Cheryl’s face but required support from living tissue while the grafts took. The smaller end was attached to her chest. Tuck your chin into your chest. Imagine yourself unable to move from that position for weeks. Such discomforts were standard as lips and ears were created. For years, her face was a work in progress.

As her head and arms and hands were being rehabilitated, she resumed high school studies. Eventually, Norma provided home schooling and Cheryl earned her high school diploma.

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On May 23, with her mother at one side and her guide dog, Tina, on the other, Bess accepted her community college diploma. As she moved slowly across the platform, her sunglasses catching the light, applause gradually built into a standing ovation among the sea of burgundy caps and gowns.

It spread to the faculty and spectators in the bleachers, where a clutch of friends hollered and woo-wooed over her achievement. Many cried.

Sharing her joy in graduating were:

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* Dwight Moore, the San Bernardino County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Bess’ assailant, who’d been convicted by a jury in two hours and sentenced to 34 years in prison, where he died two years ago.

* Martha Anaya, who helped Bess regain use of her hands via occupational therapy.

* Alexis Gaddess of Philadelphia, a property manager who a dozen years ago read of Bess’ story in a local paper and has followed her progress. She rallied a radio talk show host who asked listeners to send cards and to call in for Bess’ 16th birthday. She continues lobbying for Bess and Norma, and arrived in Mission Viejo with a bundle of new congratulation cards from Philadelphians and others who chart Bess’ progress from afar.

* Anne Delgadillo, president of the Orange County Burn Assn. and administrator for Bess’ physician.

* Dr. George Holgate, a former college administrator and dentist who now is executive director of the Burn Assn. and a burn survivor.

After the pomp and circumstance, Bess had fruit punch and cookies as a stream of friends hugged and congratulated her. Her crew then repaired--with cocktail franks, potato chips and sodas--to the patio of the Methodist Church in San Clemente, where more friends arrived. Karen, a member of Bess’ gospel choir at Saddleback College, harmonized with her to songs by Patsy Cline and others, on a karaoke-style CD player.

“She always saw things in the positive,” Anaya marveled. “Especially when the doctor told her [early on that] she probably wouldn’t sing again because her throat was burned. And listen to her now! She has an angel’s voice.

“She has a pure heart, a child’s outlook that’s kept her going. And amazingly enough, after all that’s happened, she trusts people. She still assumes people are good.”

*

Nearby, Holgate sat with his scarred hands in his lap, smiling at Bess as she belted out another song. He was burned five years ago in a boat explosion. “I basically lost my face,” he said. “My burns are similar to Cheryl’s . . . but not as deep or as intense.”

Burns are the third, maybe second, most frequent type of injury in the country, Holgate says. Two million people were burned last year, 18,000 of them fatally, 100,000 to a degree requiring hospitalization. Many carry deep scars.

“Where are these people? Hiding,” Holgate says. “They’re prisoners of themselves. Stop and think: You have a pimple or a hickey, you don’t want to go to work. Magnify that how many times over, and that’s what it’s like to have been burned.

“The main thing is, you know Cheryl can be . . . an important inspiration on the widest scale. She has the personality. If we have someone who’s been there before who thrives, it’s not so frightening.”

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As She Continues Her Journey

Graduation cards and donations for Cheryl Bess can be sent to the Cheryl Bess Special Fund, Orange County Burn Assn., c/o UC Irvine Medical Center, 101 City Drive S. Building 2, Room 110, Orange, CA 92868. (714) 456-8938. Donations, which are tax deductible, will go toward purchasing her a Braille printer.


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